Most people would attribute the invention of the World Wide Web (not to be confused with the Internet) to Tim Berners-Lee. Most people except perhaps for Berners-Lee himself. The British computer scientist, who together with Belgian Robert Cailliau and a young student at CERN, devised a way of interconnecting a Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) client and a server via the Internet, had to testify last Tuesday in a courtroom as part of an effort by a group of internet companies to defeat two patents from Michael Doyle. Mr Doyle claims that he was in fact the first inventor of the “interactive web” in 1993 when he was employed by the University of California and created a program which allowed doctors to view images of embryos using a web browser window. Not only that, he actually patented the invention.
During the audition Berners-Lee declared that “The internet was already around. … All I was doing was putting together bits that had been around for years …” And he was right of course, as the World Wide Web was not invented from scratch. It was rather the evolution of preexisting technologies, such as the long established public and private networks of the time which run in the form of Arpanet, BBSs, and other related initiatives since the mid to late 1980s, when the Web was really at its inception. But that probably wasn’t the type of answer the defenders of the “free web” had wished he’d come up with.
And they have reasons to fear because Michael Doyle, the sole founder of Eolas, has already gotten away with no less than $100 million, as a result of a settlement after suing Microsoft alleging that it had infringed on one of its patents when enabling Internet Explorer to use plug-ins and applets in the software. In 2009 Eolas sued other big companies over patent number 7,599,985, claiming royalty payments from just about anyone running a website that makes use of common “interactive” features, such as rotating pictures, serving video, or even having a “search suggestion” display in a search box. During 2011 a number of these companies, including Texas Instruments, Oracle and JPMorgan Chase opted for signing licensing deals with Eolas, while the company continues pressing to obtain payoffs from others.
However some companies like Google, Amazon, and Yahoo among others are fighting back, and are trying to use the testimonies of people like Berners-Lee, Netscape co-founder Eric Bina, Viola browser inventor Pei-Yuan Wei, and HTML evangelist Dave Raggett, to win the case.
Jennifer Doan, the lawyer representing Yahoo and Amazon, led the questioning.
“Mr. Berners-Lee, why are you here?” asked Doan.
“I am here because I want to help get some clarity over what was obvious, and what was the feeling of computing in the early 1990. The tools I had in my knapsack, so to speak,” he said.
Doan also asked whether Berners-Lee had invented the web, and more importantly whether he had applied for a patent on it.
“No,” said Berners-Lee.
“Why not?” asked Doan.
“The internet was already around. I was taking hypertext, and it was around a long time too. I was taking stuff we knew how to do. All I was doing was putting together bits that had been around for years in a particular combination to meet the needs that I have.”
Doan: “And who owns the web?”
Berners-Lee: “We do.”
The jury will now determine whether the patents are valid. If Eolas wins the case Mr Doyle would be entitled to claim royalty payments from just about every modern website.
To be continued …